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Friday, September 28, 2007

It's Certainly Been a Year

First, a glimpse of a Jilin sunset:

I was sitting in class this morning, tying to burn that damn Chinese language into my mind, half-thinking about the classes I was giving that afternoon, my mind returning to Tuesday's Mid-Autumn Festival potluck and jumping forward to the upcoming week-long National Day Holiday (week long National Day holiday? My kind of day!), when a strange series of thoughts struck me. I thought of this time last year, in Zhanjiang, when everything was new and fascinating, when I was going to Macau on my own and braving the wilds of solo travel for the first time, when teaching was just beginning to feel less like building a house during an earthquake while the wood's on fire. It's been a year, and my frame of reference, for the first time, is where I was this time last year in China, what I was doing this time last year in China. It slackens those threads of disconnect from home and winds tighter the knot of experience and living that is life, individuality.

It was a strange thought to mull over at 9:23 in the morning.

The Good and the Weird at our Mid-Autumn Potluck.

Tomorrow I begin my holiday travels. (I, but really, we: Kevin, James and myself, to be joined later by Jim and some friends from Jilin.) I will be leaving for Yanji, a small town in the far northeast of China. In Yanji is a strange mix of China and Korea, a blurring of culture and language and heritage, as well as a lot of wilderness to see and hike through in addition to a Korean Autonomous Prefecture to visit. The weather is brisk, but just warm enough to see the final lingering green of a fast-fading summer.

After a few days in Yanji, I'll (we'll) be heading southwest to the Changbai Mountains, a beautiful volcanic lake tucked within a broad range of "forever white" snow-capped peaks. This lake also happens to lap at the North Korean border, but don't worry (ahem, Dad): the Changbai Mountains are a popular (read: safe) tourist destination, and there's no way in hell I'd deliberately go to North Korea.

So I'll be out of touch for a few days. No news is good news, etc.

I'll leave you with some unfortunate frogs that were on the Mid-Autumn menu.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

Tuesday, September 25 was the Chinese Mid-Autumn Day. I was invited to a potluck at my friend's house, and James, Kevin, and I all cooked. I made some garlic mashed potatoes, James made a spicy curry, and Kevin made some pasta salad. It was a good night, a good way to celebrate this strange lunar holiday, even if I did so with more foreigners than Chinese.

My classes have been going very well. My freshmen are all very wide-eyed and eager to learn. I think their reluctance to speak in class doesn't accurately reflect their true level, because when pushed, they speak quite well. But in just these past few days, things have already changed, from me prodding them out of silence to having to raise my voice to get them to quiet down. It must be a shock to their little systems to have a class where they're encouraged to talk, discuss, and actually speak the language they have been learning all these years.

My students, I was surprised to learn, knew surprisingly few English words that English speakers use all the time to talk about China. They knew words like moon cake (the traditional food of the Mid-Autumn Festival, ranges from tasty to awful, like fruitcake at Christmas) and phrases like "Mid-Autumn Day Festival," but they didn't know that their native language, Pǔtōnghuà, is called Mandarin in English. One of the first things I learned in Chinese, even wanted to learn, was how to refer to my country and my language. And it seems for every word I say, there is a muttered wave echoing its Chinese equivalent throughout the classroom. Which isn't bad, I do that with Chinese all the time, it's just ... strange, and new.

But I have been able to toss out some awesome English names. Cousins, like Brianna, Grace, Nicole, friends like Phelan and Cecilia, but also ones that are a little more weirdly me: Revan, Harmony, Prism, Sapphire, and Hymn.

Oh, and of course: Zelda.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Environmental Problems

There is an excellent multi-part article up over at the New York Times about the staggering effects of pollution and environmental degradation in China, and rather importantly, the apathetic and often downright antipathetic politicians that perpetuate these problems.

"Provincial officials, who enjoy substantial autonomy, often ignore environmental edicts, helping to reopen mines or factories closed by central authorities. Over all, enforcement is often tinged with corruption. This spring, officials in Yunnan Province in southern China beautified Laoshou Mountain, which had been used as a quarry, by spraying green paint over acres of rock."

A lot of it can be tied back to Den Xiaoping's "growth at all costs" measures from the late 1970s and 1980s, a mentality that continues unabated today without strong rhetoric to combat it. When the country put all its faith in growth, anything to the contrary was anathema, and now there seems to be no clear voice, no decisive action, no compelling counter-argument, coming from Beijing.

One major pollutant contributing to China’s bad air is particulate matter, which includes concentrations of fine dust, soot and aerosol particles less than 10 microns in diameter (known as PM 10).

The level of such particulates is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. The European Union stipulates that any reading above 40 micrograms is unsafe. The United States allows 50. In 2006, Beijing’s average PM 10 level was 141, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics.

What's fueled this growth, and the subsequent whole-scale rape of the environment? Well, among many other things, it's been cheap, dirty power plants that keep the lights on around China. And what fuels those power plants? Tons and tons of coal.

All these new buildings require China to build power plants, which it has been doing prodigiously. In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France.

That increase has come almost entirely from small- and medium-size coal-fired power plants that were built quickly and inexpensively. Only a few of them use modern, combined-cycle turbines, which increase efficiency ...

Think about this. Think of the fouled water used for cleaning and maintaining these power plants. Think of the myriad regulations in place in the United States, regulations that simply don't exist in China, that prevent that water from entering the groundwater, that punish the owners of these plants, that force them to have some semblance of responsibility.

Now think about the marathon runner that will be running for his country in Beijing in the summer of 2008, where the air will be polluted not only beyond the normal levels of pollution in his or her home country, but polluted three to four times beyond the hazardous level in their home country.

I'm at a loss for commentary here ... just read the article.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

普通話 (Pǔtōnghuà) Means the Common Speach

And boy is that right.

Tonight my friend Joo ("Joe," as in Schmoe) invited a few friends around to his uncle's place in the middle of the city. Joo is Korean, and his "uncle" is really just a close friend of the family, but Joo saves money on room and board while he attends Beihua's foreign language school by living there. It's a short ten minute/thirteen kuai cab ride from campus, and it's a welcome change of scenery.

We were having a "pot luck" dinner, so everyone had to bring something to eat. I didn't have time/any ability to cook, so James and I stopped by a jiaozi restaurant on our way there to buy a few dozen dumplings to bring with us. I ran into two of my classmates (also both Korean) from "qu ji er ban"/class two, and through broken Chinese, body language, and random (but necessary) English exclamations, I was able to invite them along. It was a short walk from the restaurant to Joo's, and when we got there, it was surreal.

Joo had some Korean friends, but also there was Wakana (one of the Japanese teachers), as well as James, Kevin, and myself. For once, English was not the common tongue, and we all had to push ourselves to communicate with Chinese. And it was great. Long-dormant vocabulary and speech patterns sprang to mind, forgotten verbs and phrases dusted off the cobwebs, and with just enough English to get over the big humps of understanding, we had a great time.

Playing an American drinking game (One Up, One Down), drinking Korean soju, counting off and talking in Chinese ... it was fantastically bizarre.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Caffeinated Irony

Leave it to me to come to China to discover fantastic coffee.

China's store-bought coffee is instant coffee. As in, add water, stir, and you get some offensively bilious garbage that only a desperate fool would call coffee.

This will not do.

So when fortune smiled upon me and delivered unto me a coffee machine along with my new place in Jilin (despite the one I had in storage in Hong Kong that is as we speak (type?) en route), I decided I needed to find a source for ground coffee.

Once again, I was luckier than I was in Zhanjiang, because the local markets around here actually have import sections, containing a limited but certainly acceptable variety of ground coffee to any caffeinistas out there.

But then I walked by a little coffee shop near the Da Fuyuan market (I know, the 'ol mom and pop's Da Fuyuan), when what to my shimmering coffee-obsessed eye did appear, but a miniature grinder and bags of coffee beans, oh dear! Yes, the store carried whole-roasted coffee beans, bean grinders, bean roasters, and all sorts of coffee-brewing paraphernalia. You could even buy green coffee beans, roast them yourself at home, and then grind them at home for the ultimate in fresh coffee. That may be the next step, but I digress.

No, seriously, I do. Watch.

So I bought myself a small, hand-powered coffee grinder, and a little sack of Columbian beans. (See? Digression.) I brought that sucker home and got to work, and brewed myself a few cups of amazingly good coffee. It's unlike any coffee I've had before: upon brewing, the pot shimmers a beautiful warm ruby, the aroma is a dry muskiness from the freshly-crushed beans, and the taste is a sharp, delicious jolt lacking the bitterness of freeze-dried and even industrially-ground coffee. It's a satisfying sip, too, because you're actually tasting the freshly-cut, freshly-brewed bean.

So it's sadly ironic that I travel to the opposite (new word: antipodean) side of the planet, the veritable tea capital of the world, and indulge in coffee. But hey, the two are not mutually exclusive, and I'm buying and enjoying all kinds of great tea as well.

I can't believe how much I write about beverages. Good lord.

The Exploding Plastic Delicious (Birthday Redux)

OK, OK, because I care and all ...

So here's that awesome birthday cake I was telling you about:

Pretty cool, huh? Like a cross between a delicate flower and napalm. It burned and blossomed, and then we made a wish and destroyed it. Then we ate cake and drank (more) beer.

Jim, Jenny, and I have a toast to ... to me! Happy Birthday!

The cake. ( :) Birthday - Sanae Maiko Matt.) Short and sweet.

The birthday boy and girls.

Kevin's had a few.

More can be found at my Picasa.

Birthday Round(the)house

I turned twenty-three on Wednesday, September 12, and the birthday boy desired dumplings.

Jenny looks at the menu as our tea-water is conspicuously poured.

Ah, jiaozi ... you understand me like few foods do.

As it turned out, two of the Japanese teachers here in Jilin (Maiko and Sanae) both had birthdays on Friday, September 15 ... so an APB went out to all Jilin foreign teachers for a big dinner party on Saturday night.

So say hello to me, Joe (Korean student), Jay (American teacher at another school in Jilin), Sherry (Chinese teacher), Maiko (Japanese teacher), Sanae and Wakana (both Japanese teachers here at Beihua), Akira (another Japanese ... teacher?), Kevin (American teacher here at Beihua), Gavin (Chinese teacher), Greg (Australian teacher at the middle school), Jenny (Chinese teacher and de facto social coordinator), James and Jim (the final two Maryknoll teachers here in Beihua), Eric (Macanese student here at Beihua), Michelle (anti-donkey meat teacher somewhere in Jilin), and finally, back to a way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

So, elliptical Joyce references aside, it was a great time, and I've got plenty more pictures, including a video of a very unique cake. But that'll have to wait for next time, because I just bought coffee beans and a hand grinder, and I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

And I'd just like to wish a happy belated birthday to Marilyn, if she reads this; I can't leave messages on other blogs behind the Great (Fire)Wall, but I love the new blog, keep it up, and happy birthday. Oh, and thanks for the cornbread recipe.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cooking, Living, Etc.

Tonight I attempted to cook dinner on one of those strange electric stoves that are ubiquitous here in the north. Imagine a single burner on an stove at home, compacted into a simple plug-in device (like a George Foreman grill), but instead of live flame from gas or even a red-hot electric coil, there is only a sleek black surface, daring you to place the pan there and attempt to cook.

All I had in the fridge was butter (of dubious Australian heritage), half an onion, and some eggs. Chopped those onions up and threw a bit of butter into the frying pan, the plan was to brown them. But I soon realized that the current from the electric stovetop must go directly into the aluminum frying pan, because that butter was brutally mugged and almost seared clean off the instant it hit the pan. It was a delicate balancing act to add the onions and more butter without burning the entire building down; often I had to lift the pan off that devil-stove just to prevent what felt like immanent combustion, an ominous electric click coming from the "stove" when the pan was lifted and the electricity wasn't being fed right into that foul beast of a frying pan that was clearly in league with the goddamn stove top.

Whisking the eggs, I looked down to see the somewhat-browned onions simmering in a bubbling molten vat, half onion-butter, half demon-bile; bravely the eggs evacuated the mixing bowl into the savage roiling inferno. This, my friends, is adventurous cooking.

I now know why the Chinese always cook with generous amounts of oil. Or should it be the other way around: I now know why the Chinese build these mystical pseudo-stoves/flash fryers, because they cook with so much oil ...

I ended up with a barely-edible abomination, two parts onion, two parts egg, wholly tasteless, food in a very primitive sense, something only a cynical man would call a meal.

But I ate it anyway, washed down with generous amounts of tea.

How long have I been here? More than a week? Good god, has it been that long? Or equally: has really been that brief? It feels like a month, in every way, good and bad.

Things are moving slowly in Jilin. Chinese class continues, and I feel the language stirring deep in my brain, synapses flashing, new characters being remembered, understood. The weather is holding at a mid-Autumn mild, and I can't tell if my throat is sore from the pollution or the dry, dusty air. There's a feeling of vernal decompression and autumnal preparation, of sloughing off America (again) and embracing China (again), and the natural (and unnatural) mix of emotions and feelings that go with it. There are too many things to do and see here to think about home, except for those long stretches where there's nothing to do. No use but to sit back and live the contradiction.

I won't be giving classes until the twenty-fourth. So for now, it's a mad dash to the equinox, getting things ready for the inevitable routine, making yet another place feel like home in this fantastically weird country.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Bread Thread: Give me your tired, your poor ...

Your huddled masses yearning to eat bread!


Yes, folks, as you may know as per my video tour of my new place here in Jilin, I have been furnished with a new bread maker!

So I would like anyone who may read this to email me or leave a comment (go on, it's easy) with a bread recipe.

What kind of bread? Doesn't matter. I'm partial to wheat for sammiches, but I'll go crazy. Just keep in mind my ingredients remain basic and relatively raw: which means flour and eggs are doable, but Bisquick and other such things are unavailable.

So send in any and all bread recipes, and I'll let you know how it goes.

Viva la baguette!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Binge Blogging

Internet, I bow to you in humble and even eager servitude. Without access for a few days, I felt like Michael Vick at the SPCA: so close, and yet so very far, from what I wanted.

So upon jacking in to the matrix (pardon me, I've been reading some William Gibson), I indulged in a cybernetic orgy of emails, bloggings, picture-posting, and IMing. You can see a whole boatload of new "content" (I can't help but feel pompous--that is, more pompous than usual--when I use that word, as if I'm creating some form of art here) at my Picasa, and be sure to skip down a bit and see the video I posted of my new place here in Jilin. Included are pics from my time in DC with Juice and Jen, as well as some images from here in Jilin! Behold!

All I can say is, I am excited for the year here in the Great Northern North of China. Already the air has a slight, crisp chill, the incense-stink of changing leaves and a titling planetary axis dancing in the air, a truly, unimaginably fantastic change of pace from Zhanjiang. Something about this city, about the entire north of China, makes it feel like an entirely different country from Zhanjiang.

It's more than just the people. It's the cleanliness, a directness, a change in attitudes and schedules, in respect and courtesy. Yeah, there's some staring, but it's not the rude jackass bullshit from Zhanjiang. I've gotten into good (Chinese!) conversations with more random strangers here in three days than I did all of Zhanjiang in an entire year. I look forward to colder weather, and I feel a thirst, a hunger for learning putonghua/Mandarin like I've never felt before. If I don't improve dramatically here, no one will be more disappointed with me than myself.

Ah, I guess that's enough for now. China ... it's good to be back.

Some Pictures for Patrick

Patrick turned sixteen a few days before I left for China. He had a very Mac birthday, gifts consisting of little more than accessories and software for his fetish-machine. A few snapshots can be found in what critics are calling "the best photo album registered to Picasa user: darkbastion since." I think you'll agree: Wet Hot American Summer '07 is the best one since!

My Apartment in Zhanjiang Jilin

The much-anticipated sequel to last year's post!